Monday, February 5, 2018

Galerie St. Etienne: Käthe Kollwitz

In her biography of Edward Hopper, author Gail Levin mentions in passing that the artist and his wife in 1956 attended an exhibit of Käthe Kollwitz's work at the Galerie St. Etienne.  It was a bit strange then to visit more than sixty years later the same gallery, albeit at a different location, to view the artist's work, one half of two-woman show entitled All Good Art Is Political.  I couldn't help but wonder if the some of the works on display might not have been the same that Hopper saw so long ago.

Kollwitz was one of those individuals whose lives are given over to social concerns.  In this she was only one of many twentieth century artists whose talent was put in service of larger issues and who sought to draw attention to the plight of those who were the victims of government indifference or of totalitarian repression.  The big difference was that Kollwitz was a woman.  As such, she had to struggle not only against the far right movements she opposed but also against the chauvinism of male artists who should have been her allies.

It's not surprising that Kollwitz early on developed a social conscience.  Her father was a radical politician while her maternal grandfather was a Lutheran minister ousted from his pastoral post for his espousal of reform.  Kollwitz's husband, whom she married at age 24, was a Berlin medical doctor whose patients consisted of oppressed workers and their needy families.  As a result, the social commentary implicit in Kollwitz's art was derived more from first hand experience than from intellectual leanings or affiliation with any particular political party.  Whatever else she may have been, Kollwitz was first and foremost the artist of the exploited and downtrodden.

Kollwitz's share of the current exhibit consists of thirty four graphic works - most of them etchings, lithographs and woodcuts - that extend over the course of her career from the late nineteenth century to the Nazi era.  Some of them, such as the lithographs Free Our Prisoners! (1919) and Help Russia (1921), are poster art.  The most moving of them, however, portray touching domestic scenes.  These include Unemployment (etching, 1909) and Killed in Action (lithograph, 1919).  There are also several works from different periods depicting prisoners - e.g., The Prisoners (etching, 1908) and Prisoners Listening to Music (lithograph, 1925) - which one wishes had been supplied with sufficient documentation to enable the viewer to understand the reasons for their confinement and the identity of their captors.

Wtthout doubt, the single most harrowing image at the exhibit is Raped (etching, 1907-1908).  It's one of seven prints that comprise Peasants' War, a series that took as its source the brutality of the sixteenth century German nobility toward the peasant population.  Here a disheveled woman lies on her back in a garden, her misery only made more pronounced by the beauty of the flowers surrounding her.  The work is immediately reminiscent of Goya's The Disasters of War, but in its iconography it is also an eerie precursor of the lustmord paintings by such artists as Otto Dix and George Grosz that were to gain prominence during the Weimar period.

The pain Kollwitz endured during her long life, including the loss of both a son and grandson in the two world wars, raises her work above the level of mere artistry and endows it with an immediacy that could not otherwise have been attained.  It's ironic that even now the humanity evidenced in her prints should be overshadowed by the same petty concerns - gender and perceived leftist leanings - that hampered her career during her own lifetime.  What is happening today in our own country is proof that the struggle in which she took part is far from over and far from won.  Kollwitz in death is just as much a champion of the oppressed and disenfranchised as she was in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century.

The other woman whose work was on display at the show was the contemporary British graphic artist Sue Coe who, like Kollwitz, has devoted her life and art to protest; but her works, while excellent, did not affect me as greatly as did those of the German artist.

The exhibit continues through March 10, 2018.

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